Spouses Probably Shouldn't Try to Split Household Tasks Exactly Evenly

Obsessing over a completely fair division of labor defeats the purpose of marriage.
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Art Institute of Chicago Museum

Marriages should be equal, and that has to mean equal housework too. Laundry, cleaning, child care, scheduling playdates, and buying groceries—it should be split as nearly down the middle as possible. Keeping a running tally of who has spent most hours on what is vital. Ideally, spouses should also sit down together and work out a good rule-of-thumb for particularly onerous or unpleasant tasks and figure out how many hours of those can be translated into regular duty hours, and vice versa. For example, two minutes of changing diapers should probably be worth four minutes at least of just regular doing the laundry. Car pool pick-ups should be placed on a graduated scale depending on how many kids there are, average decibel level, and so forth.

All of which sounds quite rational and orderly. The only problem with it being—as anyone in a relationship could tell you—that it is insane.

Nobody actually argues that you should split up housework by using time charts or ranking the dirtiness of diapers. But the logic of quantification can be appealing. Alexandra Bradner, in a post here at The Atlantic, suggested that couples sit down together and work out what percentage of different household tasks each of them does. ("Record your answers and compare notes.") Andy Hinds, in a response to Bradner, toyed with the idea of keeping track of the hours spent on chores. "If my log shows that I'm putting in as many hours as she is, I'm vindicated. If it shows that I'm not, then I have impetus to step up my game and make my wife happier. Win-win."

Hinds's solution here gets at the heart of why this kind of quantification is pretty much useless when you're talking about domestic chores in a relationship. Imagine that Hinds discovers that he is in fact putting in as many hours as his wife. Is that actually going to make his wife less unhappy? Here, honey, I have data showing that you are complaining for no reason. My figures confirm that your unhappiness is your own damn fault. Now, I've done my hours for the week, so I'm going to watch the tube while you fold the laundry. Ain't objectivity grand?

I can say with some assurance that if I said something like this to my wife, she would be displeased. Hinds acknowledges, "It's easy to imagine that keeping track of the hours spent on chores at home could make them seem even more onerous." He says it would open up a "whole new dimension of nitpicking," which it certainly would. But the problem is not just logistical or practical. It's philosophical. There is something inherently insulting about quantifying your relationship with your spouse.

The way that relationships are quantified, and what this means, is one of the central themes of anthropologist David Graeber's recent book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Graeber explains that economists, and economic models, have led most of us to see exchanges most of the time in terms of debt—specific obligations owed. Debt, Graeber argues, came historically before money, and tends to bring money into being as a way of measuring, or quantifying, specific obligations. When Bradner talks about percentages of housework, or when Hines contemplates tallying hours, they are, then, moving housework into the realm of debts, which can be quantified and, therefore, discharged ("If my log shows that I'm putting in as many hours as she is, I'm vindicated.")

The problem here is that a marriage is not a short-term loan. You are not in a transaction with your spouse; you're in a relationship. In fact, as Graeber argues, part of the point of debt is to turn relationships into objective transactions, so that you don't have to worry about messy emotions like pity or neighborliness when you toss that farmer into prison or force his daughter into debt-servitude in your palace.

In contrast, many egalitarian societies make an enormous effort to keep clear of the logic of debt. Graeber tells a story about an Inuit man who offered a hungry anthropologist named Peter Freuchen a huge mound of seal meat. Freuchen thanked the man profusely. Freuchen recorded the man's response.

"Up in our country we are human!" said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs."

The meat is not a loan—nor even, in the hunter's words, a gift. Instead, it is a testament to the fact that the giver and receiver are both human—and both part of the ongoing social relationship that is humanity. To quantify that relationship, or even, in this extreme case, to give thanks for it, is an insult. You share meat because that is what humans do, not because you expect a return. Or, rather, because the return you expect is not a return, but the relationship itself, which cannot be circumscribed within the logic of exchange and reciprocity.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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